There was something wrong. Something had grown where it shouldn’t have grown, had built upon itself cell by cell in the quiet of blood and bone, beneath the blanket of his skin. Who knows how long it had swelled with certainty.
On the outside, all appeared ordinary to us. But then his balance went and the seizures came, seizing his speech, mapping fractures throughout the glass mechanisms of body and mind. Everything, it was clear now, could shatter. And it was harrowing.
Twelve years—that’s how long a story of cancer can tumble on, like a stone working its way down a jagged hill, skipping on the seasons and turning slowly into the holidays, throwing its weight into every expectation. Twelve years and three brain surgeries. Then chemo. Then hospice. Then silence—long and deep and deafening. And then, when the stone has been settled for long enough, the song of routine and rhythm grows steadily louder.
There is an end to the outside.
My father’s been dead for fifteen years. The cancerous tumor on his brain stem tore him down, and his death tore me down. It stripped me of many things: self-assurance, certainty, and ignorance among them. But it also gave me things I didn’t know I wanted: desperation, direction, maybe even some confidence. Most important, though, was a small truth that emerged over the last fifteen years. It has two parts. First, there is an end to the outside.
The body goes. It breaks down. There is a place where the outside ends. Cancer just amplifies this and drapes it with hair follicles and old bed linens, calling it out with the smell of astringents and the sound of soft condolences.
There’s another half of the truth, though, and it’s taken on a slight shimmer, calling out for attention whenever the sun strikes it: there is no end to the inside. The inner life, the soul, presses forward, leaning into death so that it can burst through the barricade of materiality, like the head-heavy peonies in our garden that blossom and dive and bow. Their beauty pushes them forward. Dust is not our destination.
Longfellow’s words ring true:
Life is real;
Life is earnest,
And the grave is not its goal.
‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest’
Was not spoken of the soul.
So it is of my father. So it will be of me and of you. Where the outside ends is where the inside goes on.
And the last thread of hope in the speech of God himself is the promise of the outside being renewed from the inside. We’ll get our bodies back, free of calluses, crones, and cancer—free of dementia and disease. From the inside will come a new outside. The wrongs that grow inside us for a time will turn to rights that burgeon for eternity.
Hope has a strange and secret botany, winding its way through the inside of the soul, flowering sometimes on the outside, but ever thickening its roots, roots that break through the sickness and frailty of time and grip the soil of God’s words, which will never pass away. Keep your eyes fixed on the inside. Where the outside ends, the inside goes on.